Friday, January 16, 2009

435 - Defiance review

"I told you, do a Holocaust movie and the awards come, didn't I?” - Ricky Gervais to Kate Winslet at the Golden Globes.

Have there been more films made about a topic than World War II? Maybe about love, but seemingly every movie is about that in one way or another. But that largest of wars engulfed so many, destroyed so much, and involved so much gunfire that it’s begging to be put to film well into the next century.

Edward Zwick’s “Defiance” is the latest World War II film, nipping at the heels of the Tom Cruise vehicle “Valkyrie.” Both are advertised as being based on a little heard true story, and while that’s a preposterous assertion for the latter, it’s true for the former, which follows a band of Polish Jews who form a partisan group. It’s an interesting bit of history, one told with maximum adherence to Hollywood formula and the sort of passion that accompanies the hopes of an easy Oscar nomination.

The film’s heroes are the Bielski brothers, three Polish Jews who take to the woods after the Nazi conquest of their homeland. Tuvia (Daniel Craig), the de facto leader, invites a few fellow refugees to stay at their camp. Days pass, more Jews show up. All well and good, says younger brother Zus (Liev Schreiber), but how can they kill Germans effectively with a bunch of old ladies and their grandchildren in tow?

Their part in the war ramps up. They loot weapons and equipment from the dead. Food is stolen from local farmers. Attacks from both Germans and local police working with them are commonplace. Tuvia and Zus’ debate over what to do intensifies, leading to a split: one group that works to rescue Jewish civilians, another that takes the fight to the invaders (the German ones, seeing as the Soviets are there, too).

We’re familiar with the notion that men are turned into monsters by war, though “Defiance” highlights this aptly throughout its first half. The area has dissolved into madness, the specter of German military might alone driving the locals to butcher one another, both in anticipation of violence and to avenge it. Seemingly everyone has somebody, and the misery is palatable; what are they living for?

“Defiance” could have been special, perhaps, if it had stuck to examining the moral and logistical hardships faced by the partisans. Instead, the better details stand side by side with Hollywood convention, scripted and directed by Edward Zwick in a film-by-numbers fashion. Every plot development is telegraphed far in advance, every character fits an ancient archetype, every shot of the lead is framed to hammer home the cinematic machismo of Daniel Craig. His character even plucks out the prettiest girl in the camp to be his “forest wife,” leading to a romantic sexual romp by the fireplace. Pretty scenic stuff for a couple living in a snow-strewn refugee camp.

It climaxes with a shootout where Craig gets to single-handedly kill half of the German soldiers, who function more like popup targets than one of the more fearsome militaries of the era. It’s well shot, but still light-years away from the utter sensory immersion achieved by Steven Spielberg’s brilliant “Saving Private Ryan.” When Schreiber’s group arrives at the close to help win the final battle, I was withdrawn enough from the action that I prayed Craig would say “Dude, you were my dues ex machina. That is so cool of you.”

Edward Zwick is the director of films such as “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” and “Blood Diamond.” All feature tough white protagonists who use their skills to aid a distinctly nonwhite group of supporting characters. His filmography is unique in that it works hard to satisfy both those with an intense sense of white guilt and those who believe that true wisdom and combat prowess comes from the Caucasian male (I think these two groups overlap with surprising frequency). Everyone in “Defiance” is white, and the protagonists are members of the ethnic group they’re serving, though if Daniel Craig is a Jew, then so am I (I’m not). I suppose it’s an ideological upgrade if neither description fits you, though

If “Defiance” has any lasting contribution to the world, it’s the broadening the scope of the war to contemporary audiences. Courtesy of the American film industry, World War II is thought of here as primarily an American affair, the turning point of which was the Normandy landings in 1944. In reality, the Germans had squandered their already microscopic chance to win the war well before the American presence in Europe. On the eastern front, sums of soldiers and civilians alike perished in months that dwarfed our manpower losses dozens of times over. Meanwhile, I don’t start conversations with people about the conflict because I’m afraid they’ll mistake the Soviet Union for an Axis power. There may be a surplus of World War II films, but I believe there to be room for a decent one such as this. Even if it has little to say other than that war is bad and Hollywood formula is good, at least it does so in Poland.


Blake Badker said...

WW2 is america's crutch... well, we had it right in WW2, didn't we? That means we can fuck up the mideast! Maybe because we got it so right in WW2 we gotta be extra careful with what we do with our military, to preserve our gains...

That or power vaccuum it out till over - America wins the historical game of RISK.

In terms of the movie - who gives a shit? What's a gun? What's a bullet? What's a bullet noise? I don't even care anymore. I don't hear them.

Ryan said...

This was a fun movie to watch, even if it was frightfully predictable. I'm pretty sure I could have gone "He's gonna die" or "He's gonna live" as every single character came onscreen.

You know what you don't see enough of in movies though? How much Jews kick ass. Every other movie about Jews in WWII is a victim's story. I suppose this was too in a way, but it was nice to see them hitting back.

I usually expect about as much reality in a Hollywood production as it would be realistic for me to say that I won a marathon yesterday when all I really did was walk from my car to my office.